Radio: Cold blood and hot air

Ryan Tubridy preferred crime stories to budgetary matters as Sean O’Rourke hosted an awkward encounter for Minister Howlin

Test Ministers: Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, left, and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at the RTÉ radio centre after appearing on the Today with Sean O’Rourke  show. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Test Ministers: Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, left, and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at the RTÉ radio centre after appearing on the Today with Sean O’Rourke show. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire


It was a spectacle familiar from many a budget day: a gaggle of reporters eagerly awaiting an event whose details had been flagged well in advance but that was nonetheless the subject of feverish speculation and analysis. It says much about the interest in the release of the drug dealer John Gilligan that coverage of the occasion rivalled that of the measures unveiled by Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin on the same day.

It was noteworthy news, but in purely radio terms Gilligan’s release also had the appeal of providing relief from the monotonous fug surrounding the Budget. Ryan Tubridy, for one, nailed his colours to the mast when he bemoaned “the analysis of the analysis of the analysis” of fiscal measures, instead plumping for a discussion with the crime journalist Michael O’Toole about his brief interview with the freed gang leader.

The item, on Tubridy (2FM, weekdays), revealed much about the media scrum that feeds such stories, as O’Toole recounted how a colleague from the Irish Daily Star had followed Gilligan from Portlaoise Prison on a speeding motorbike. But his actual interview was hardly revealing: Gilligan vocally protested his innocence in any involvement with the 1996 murder of Veronica Guerin by members of his gang, before chirpily declaring his intention to have a beer.

It made for queasy listening, particularly when he referred to Guerin, whom he had been charged with viciously assaulting, as “that poor girl”, but it added little in the way of understanding its subject beyond O’Toole’s assertion that the criminal had “ice in his blood”. That the conversation turned to the crime drama Love/Hate suggested that Tubridy knew the item was a bit thin.

Over on Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) the presenter took pains to point out that Gilligan “was never convicted for anything to do with Veronica Guerin” before quashing any concerns about excessive impartiality by reminiscing at length about the murdered reporter with her friend and fellow journalist Lise Hand. Amid bittersweet tales about her sparkiness and tenacity, however, O’Rourke posed some pertinent questions about whether the late reporter’s employer, the Sunday Independent, should have done more to protect her, particularly after she had earlier been shot in the leg. Hand was admirably straight in her answer, saying the paper – which she too worked for – should have stepped in, as “the thing was getting out of control”. It was an intriguing sequence, particularly with crime journalism now featuring so prominently in the media.

For all that, O’Rourke devoted much more time to budgetary matters. It could hardly be otherwise, given that Ministers Noonan and Howlin turned up on Wednesday’s show to face questions from the public, a tradition that O’Rourke said was 40 years old, lest anyone think the custom merely a carry-over from his predecessor’s reign. O’Rourke handled the encounter with admirable scrupulousness. When Noonan sought to reassure listeners that “we’re getting through this difficulty”, the host even resisted the temptation to repeat Tonto’s line to the Lone Ranger when surrounded by Indians: “What do you mean ‘we’, paleface?”

But he pulled up Howlin when the Minister defended his cost-cutting measures with the hoary line that the Government was “given a lousy bunch of cards to play with two and a half years ago”.

“Yes, we all know that,” O’Rourke shot back impatiently.

The rawest exchange, however came when Howlin spoke to Stella, a working married woman whose two children, both of whom have cerebral palsy, had been denied the discretionary medical card they had previously been granted on the grounds of income. While sounding pained by Stella’s story – caring for one of her sons cost €25,000 a year, she said – the Minister insisted there had been no change in the guidelines for such cards.

“But obviously there is a change,” Stella said. “Our income has gone down and our card is gone.”

It was one of those vivid moments where those who formulate policy are faced with the human cost of their decisions.

Meanwhile, The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) had to make do with the pundits David McWilliams and Eddie Hobbs, whose distinctive if contrasting stylistic tics distracted from the substance of their contributions. Hobbs decried the Budget as having the unimaginative, piecemeal approach of an accountant, before insisting that “benefit tourism” needed to be tackled: a piecemeal, populist move by any other name.

McWilliams, on the other hand, self-consciously signposted his cerebral approach by quoting Martin Luther King on “the tranquillising drug of gradualism” and by speaking. Very. Slowly. As. If. To. Small. Children.

The impression of superiority was unfortunate, as McWilliams had a few worthwhile things to say. He said that, with multinationals here effectively paying a tax rate of 2.5 per cent, such companies were the real “benefit tourists”, deserving of increased (but still tiny) tax rates of, say, 6 per cent.

Unlike much punditry, McWilliams traded in more than hot air, keeping his sight on the big picture. It’s a pity his delivery was so windy.

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